On the eve of a bizarre French election, in which the establishment have had to go to unusual and creative results to get their candidate across the finish line, I thought I'd pick a Gallic picture for our Saturday movie date: Les Parapluies de Cherbourg - or The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. It's a favorite film of mine, and one of those features that if I ever come across it channel-surfing I usually find myself stopping and watching through to the end. Its composer was Michel Legrand, not yet a name in Hollywood and the Oscar winner of "Windmills Of Your Mind", as quoted in Paragraph 111 of my Answer to Plaintiff's Amended Complaint in Mann vs Steyn et al. His big anglophone hits still lay ahead. Since Les Parapluies, I've acquired a modest connection to M Legrand, and not just in the court-pleadings sense. My Sweet Gingerbread Girl Jessica Martin appeared in the world premiere of his stage musical Marguerite, which was not boffo, but even Legrand at his non-best is better than most other fellows. And indeed our extra-groovy record of "Sweet Gingerbread Man" is, in fact, a Legrand composition.
But I doubt we'd have "Sweet Gingerbread" or Marguerite or the Hollywood hits if it hadn't been for the international success of Umbrellas of Cherbourg. If you last saw the movie in the Seventies or Eighties, you won't recognize the old girl. It was a hit film, but it literally faded away. The 1964 original was released in some cheapo version of Eastmancolor that washed out like an Instamatic snap left in a sunny window, until all that was left of Jacques Demy's consciously heightened color scheme was a watery blurry pink. In the Nineties, Demy's widow, Agnès Varda, a director herself, restored the picture to its original vibrancy, and Cherbourg is once again a feast of spun-sugar color (to quote "Sweet Gingerbread Man") — bright reds and greens, fuschias and tangerines, like marzipan icing in a glorious patisserie. There's a scene where Catherine Deneuve tries on her new maternity dress, and you notice the eggshell-blue pattern co-ordinates perfectly with the candy-stripe wallpaper of her bedroom.
Anything else to the movie apart from the exquisitely choreographed riot of color? Well, it's a basic tale: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, some other boy gets girl. But the switcheroo is that the whole thing's through-sung. Not just songs, like Gigi or Mary Poppins, but the whole magilla , from the opening dialogue in the Cherbourg service station where the male lead, a guy called Guy, works as a grease monkey. He's taking his gal — Geneviève — to see Carmen, and so the other mechanics sing, 'I don't like operas. Movies are better', and 'All that singing gives me a pain.' It's not an operatic score — Michel Legrand is at his most arioso in the love themes but also offers plenty of groovy movie jazz — yet it's operatic in form, and somehow carries it off more convincingly than Andrew Lloyd Webber does with, say, his Frenchified Aspects Of Love.
Some critics I respect compared this century's Moulin Rouge! to Umbrellas of Cherbourg: the later film is certainly as style-obsessed as its predecessor, but the glibness of that style suffocates the movie. Les Parapluies manages to be, at critical moments, both stylish and naturalistic. Jacques Demy is a mostly forgotten figure today, but he was hot for a while, and this film is remembered nowadays for making a star out of Catherine Deneuve. According to the producer Mag Bodard, Demy had taken the project to other studios, who told him to ditch the color and the singing and it'll make a great little black-and-white melodrama. Just like a zillion other French movies. I was watching that film the other day where Gérard Depardieu has an affair with a plain woman. And after ten minutes you realise Josiane Balasko isn't really 'plain', it's just that she says everything in an expressionless voice through a flat unsmiling mouth with eyes staring off into the middle distance. And Depardieu's wife, Carole Bouquet, is a beautiful gal but she's also doing the whole picture with an expressionless voice and dead eyes staring off into the middle distance. Ninety per cent of the French movie industry has persuaded itself that expressionless acting equals seriousness.
By contrast, Demy manages to root a wise, rueful meditation in a form of romantic fantasy — and, by golly, we're all the better for it. Musical theatre in France has been on the skids since Offenbach — Les Misérables needed Cameron Mackintosh to make it a worldwide hit — and Demy, like the guys in that service station, preferred movies. He concocted Umbrellas at least partly as a thank-you to Arthur Freed's MGM musicals of the Fifties. Watch during the credits, when the title flashes up and we see the aerial shots of the unfurled parapluies: it's an explicit tip of the brolly to Singin' in the Rain and the umbrellas of Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Connor. But Demy goes way beyond anything a largely nostalgic Hollywood was interested in doing with the musical by 1964: not only is it through-composed, it's also contemporary and urban, and the war the hero goes off to is the Algerian one. He cast it very expertly: as the lovestruck teenager, Catherine Deneuve's ageless beauty was in its first flush; her mum, the umbrella shop's proprietress, played by Anne Vernon, is one of those sparky sensual ladies d'un certain âge the French do so well; and the men are well matched — Nino Castelnuovo as the earnest young mechanic, and Marc Michel as the older suitor, a Gallic variant on what's basically the Herbert Marshall role of decent old stick with mustache. These characters are types but they transcend their types through Demy and Legrand's mastery of form.
Michel Legrand's wall-to-wall score doesn't really do 'numbers' as such: there are tunes that became break-out hits around the world but with English words by Norman Gimbel that reorganized them into conventional lyric form — in the movie itself, they're not presented as songs but merely as musical themes for the setting of particular characters' dialogue. Nevertheless, they're beautifully tailored. The score's big tunes are the two love themes: 'I Will Wait For You' (a staple for Sixties lounge acts) is Guy and Geneviève's song, heartfelt and full-throated; 'Watch What Happens', for the older man, is modest and tentative and only flowers into full-blooded romantic sentiment in its release. That's very good dramatic writing.
Most remarkable of all is how quickly you accept the convention. Explained in advance, there's no obvious call for a movie where the pump-jockey at the gas station sings 'Super ou ordinaire?' and the customer sings back at him 'N'importe'. But, in fact, it's a marvelous lesson in how any work of art with its own integrity can create its own dramatic language. Look at those Cherbourg service stations — high ceilings, white walls, red signs, and wonderfully evocative of the period, they manage to be both real and utterly romantic.
The final scene is set on the forecourt by the petrol pumps during a December snowfall, as Legrand's big love theme swells one last time: it's gorgeously filmed and yet the drama of the moment is, at least in Hollywood terms, anti-romantic. In paying hommage to the American musical, Demy was also showing how it could expand its range. He led the way and if no one wanted to follow, that's hardly his fault.
~There's more of Mark at the Movies (and with a French connection, too) on next weekend's Mark Steyn Show. If you enjoy SteynOnline's cultural content, for a limited time there's a chance to become a Founding Member of The Mark Steyn Club.